Thatcher and the non-sexist myth

Not everybody in the UK agreed with Rashida Manjoo’s view (see previous post) that the UK was the “most in your face sexist country”. The right wing press used the fact that we had a female Prime Minister back in 1979 – long before among others Germany (2004) and Australia (2010) – and of course the US has never had a female President – as proof that the UK is not sexist. But the fact is that Margaret Thatcher became leader of her party despite sexism not because there wasn’t any. In fact she used sexism to her advantage! She got the job due to a conjunction of circumstances and a mixture of luck bravery and people underestimating her. As tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of her becoming her party’s leader I thought I’d explain the story of how she became leader of her party 40 years ago.
The fact she became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 was quite remarkable. After all the Conservative Party has a poor record in electing woman MPs. In 1975 she was one out of just 7 (out of 276) Conservative MPs who were women. There have been 18 post war elections in the UK. In only two of them – 1970 and 1983* has the party elected more women MPs than Labour. Add to that the fact that Thatcher herself – in a BBC interview in 1973 – said “there will never be a female Prime Minister in my lifetime”. Yet she became leader of her party only two years later. So what happened in between?
The first event that led to her becoming leader was in February 1974 when Conservative leader and UK Prime Minister Edward Heath called a General Election he did not need to. He had a secure majority and his mandate lasted until June 1975. But he wanted a new mandate to deal with a miners’ strike. His election slogan was “Who Governs Britain?” The voters decided “Not you mate!”. Although the election produced a hung parliament Labour had 301 seats to Heath’s 296. Heath tried (and failed) to form a Coalition with the Liberals but eventually resigned. He had thrown away power and went on to lose a second election the following October. People thought a leader that had lost two elections in a year should go.
It is interesting to note that in October 1974 Thatcher was still a 50-1 no hoper with the bookmakers to be leader and only Robert McKenzie of the BBC seemed to think she was a runner. During the BBC’s October 1974 results programme he said “Returned (to Parliament) a few minutes ago Mrs Thatcher could be one of the contenders”. William Whitelaw – a Heath loyalist – was considered the favourite.
But Heath wouldn’t resign. He would have to be forced out. This meant that as Whitelaw was still loyal someone would need to be found to challenge him. It could have been controversial maverick Enoch Powell – the Nigel Farage of his day – but back in February he had resigned his seat said he was voting LABOUR and told the electorate to do likewise. That of course meant he could hardly be the Conservative Party leader. So who would challenge Heath?
And this is where Thatcher got lucky. She had no intention of running for leader. As the British General Election of 1979 (page 62) put it “She was a supporter of the claims of Edward du Cann and Sir Keith Joseph. It was only after these two declined to be considered that she decided to oppose Mr Heath”. And of course no one gave her a chance. An example of the sexism she faced was from the Daily Mirror (February 3 1975) which said “with Margaret Thatcher it is sometimes a bit hard to tell whether she wants to be Prime Minister or housewife of the year”. In fact her campaign manager Aiery Neave even used sexism to her advantage. As she was the only serious candidate** to oppose Heath Neave was able to say to Conservative MPs “the only way to get a serious candidate like Whitelaw was to vote for “the filly” on the first ballot” (Dominic Sandbrook , “Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-79”, page 246). Neave’s plan was not for Thatcher to win but to stop Heath getting a majority on the first ballot. One Conservative MP said “there were never 139 votes (the figure needed for a majority) for Margaret”
But on February 4 1975 Thatcher caused a sensation. She beat Heath by 130-119. Heath, humiliated, promptly resigned. But as she hadn’t got 139 votes other candidates could now enter the race. And they did. FOUR men announced their candidacy. Not just Whitelaw but Sir Geoffrey Howe, James Prior and John Peyton. The press weren’t fooled. It looked like a bunch of sexists were desperately trying to stop her winning. The Glasgow Herald headline on February 6th 1975 summed it up. “Male stampede to stop Mrs Thatcher”. The Daily Telegraph – on the same day – said “A whole herd of faint hearts had left it to a courageous and able woman to topple a formidable leader and then ganged up to deny her her just reward”. But it turned out to be another stroke of luck. Conservative MPs saw through the plan, momentum swung towards her and on February 11 1975 she won easily trouncing Whitelaw by 146-79 (no one else got more than 19). Britain against all the odds had a female leader of a major party. The governing Labour Party were happy though. Ministers said in private “That’s it We’re home and dry… no need to worry about the next election. It’s a forgone conclusion”(Sandbrook page 252). As it turned out they were wrong and Thatcher went on to win three elections in a row. But the fact was although she was brave to oppose Heath she was lucky to win. MPs were voting not for her but to get Heath out. And just look at this list of “Ifs” that would have changed history:
If Heath hadn’t called the February 1974 election.
If he had won it.
If Powell hadn’t told everyone to vote Labour.
If Heath had resigned after October allowing loyalists like Whitelaw to stand.
Or ifJoseph or du Cann had stood.
If any of those events had happened Thatcher would never had stood for the leadership never mind won it.
But did Thatcher’s win mean the UK is not sexist now? Hardly. First of all as Prime Minister Thatcher was no friend of women. During her 15 years as leader the number of Conservative female MPs only rose from 7 to 17 and for most of her time as PM she was the only woman in her Cabinet. That is why despite smashing the glass ceiling for women most feminists hate her as she did nothing to help other women. And since she resigned as PM in 1990 no other woman been elected leader of one of the UK’s three main parties***. In fact only three women since Thatcher have even stood for leadership of their parties – Diane Abbott, Jackie Ballard and Margaret Beckett. And only 22.8 per cent of MPs are women even today.
However there is hope. It is highly likely that whichever one of David Cameron or Ed Miliband loses this year’s election will also lose his job. And both the Conservatives with Home Secretary Theresa May and Labour with her shadow Yvette Cooper have genuine female contenders for leadership. In fact May has been mentioned as a future leader far more than Thatcher ever was. I reckon the odds are 50-50 that 2015 will be the year the UK gains its first female leader of one of our big parties since Thatcher back in 1975.
Yes Thatcher’s achievement in becoming Conservative leader and then Prime Minister was a great one. But anybody who thinks because of that the UK is not a sexist country needs to stop burying their heads in the sand like ostriches. Sexism is a problem in the UK. And anyone who says it is not are lying.
* And in 1983 the percentage of Conservative MPs who were female (13 out of 397 or 3.3 per cent) was lower than Labour’s (10 out of 209 or 4.8 per cent)
** There was one other candidate in the first ballot – Hugh Fraser the MP for Stafford and Stone. He was such a nonentity my politics teacher had never heard of him and he was not a serious candidate. He got 16 votes.
*** The Labour Party have had two female Deputy Leaders. Margaret Beckett and the current holder of the job Harriet Harman. Both were acting Leaders when the Party was between leaders – Beckett in 1994 and Harman in 2010.

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